The overwhelming majority of males would love to have a 20 year old girlfriend. That’s true of 20 year old males, 50 year old males, and 80 year old males. Obviously not all do have such girlfriends or even try to get one, but that’s because of other life factors (the most obvious being when they realize that zero such women would give them the time of day), rather than lack of desire.
So in that sense I suppose this movie about a 40-something year old guy dating a 20 year old woman shamelessly panders to a practically ubiquitous male fantasy.
The relationship is between a photographer (Stephen Rea)–somewhat successful in the past, serious attitude about his art, ambivalent about the commercialism of it, kind of a hip guy with hip friends, mostly living on the edge financially in a “starving artist” kind of way–and a girl who’s just finished college (Sarah Polley)–accepted to Harvard Law School but backs out, from a rich family of snobs and lawyers, a little goofy and giggly and lacking in confidence despite the aforementioned acceptance to Harvard and the fact that she must have skipped a couple grades along the way to be through college at 20.
On the whole, this is a well done, interesting film. There are parts of it that rang false to me, but there are also elements I found intriguing and thought-provoking. Let’s take a look at both.
The first false note comes at the very beginning. The female lead says in a retrospective voiceover that this older boyfriend “was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Or maybe the best,” which struck me as the kind of eye roll inducing line I might have written as a teenager.
I wasn’t really sold on the notion that their relationship fits a pattern of his, that she is one of five or six women he’s taken on as girlfriends and proteges over the years, all starting at about her age, all lasting about a year to three years, and all overlapping a great deal in the details of the relationships (e.g., his pet names for them).
First off, I don’t find it believable he could get that many young girls, though I suppose people do it. But also it implies he’s kind of a phony and just uses whatever lines enable him to collect trophies, whereas that’s really not the picture that’s painted of him–I don’t think–in the movie as a whole. Mostly he seems to treat this current girlfriend quite well, and to have deep and genuine feelings for her, and their relationship seems to be a pretty positive and healthy one, at least as these things go. (Which also makes that line about how he was “the worst thing that ever happened to [her]” inapplicably melodramatic. I don’t see that he did anything to her to warrant her being devastated or judging him harshly.)
It’s also odd that these women all know of each other, and end up knowing each other, and they’re not as condemnatory toward him about this pattern as I’d expect. I bought it even less when they gathered together for him when he was dying and even took a topless group photo for him. Uh, yeah, I don’t think so. Maybe I’m wrong and it could happen, but that didn’t feel real to me.
I also didn’t think much of the sequence near the end when he’s dying and he asks the Polley character to sketch out what the afterlife will be like, and she describes a whole elaborate scenario. If you listen to her lines and the way she delivers them, it sounds nothing at all like a person coming up with ideas on the spur of the moment in conversation. It sounds instead just like someone reading a written monologue, like in a (not very good) play.
So as I say, there were some things that didn’t work for me, that maybe didn’t seem consistent, realistic, or well-constructed. But those elements were more the exception. Mostly this movie and this relationship did feel real. It felt like these people have a good chemistry, and that they’re interesting as individuals and as a couple. I didn’t go along with every part, but I’d say I went along with the whole.
Maybe the single most effective scene to me is when the mother (Jean Smart) confronts the boyfriend about dating her daughter who is less than half his age, because I think she very accurately represents the bitterness older women feel toward men who prefer young women (even aside from it being her daughter).
Attitudes like that, and this whole issue, have long fascinated me. Such attitudes are extraordinarily common. If you’re a guy, and you have a choice between mentioning to a middle-aged or older woman (and even a fair number of younger women) that you’re more attracted to a college-age woman than to women significantly older, versus telling her you’re a serial killer who loves torturing and killing folks for sport, I strongly recommend the latter if you want to generate less loathing in her for you. There is virtually no greater sin in the eyes of a woman than for a man to prefer youth in a partner.
And as I say, Smart gives a riveting performance manifesting precisely this loathing. She goes off on a rant, trying to find whatever convoluted psychological explanations of men’s attraction for younger women are the most insulting to such men (they’re too immature and unconfident to try for women their own age, they need easier conquests who will idol worship them, etc.), but in so doing she fails to nail him with anything particularly psychologically insightful so much as she reveals the rage and self-doubt and negativity inside her (and so many women) about this topic. Her mean-spirited insistence on how pathetic he is frankly makes her look pathetic.
Hate to break it to you lady, but as self-flattering as it may be, your notion that guys go for 20 year old women because that’s the best they can do and because they’re scared to aim “higher” for women like you is nothing short of delusional.
You know, people are attracted to what they’re attracted to. You can wish it were different, but I don’t go along with this judgmental crap. I don’t rail against women just because virtually all of them would rather be with some muscular 25 year old surfer, or with some rich and powerful guy, than with me. It’s just a fact. If I could wave a magic wand and make them prefer me I would, but I don’t have a hatred of women over it. I don’t feel anything like the visceral loathing so many women–as represented accurately by the mother in this movie–have when they see a middle-aged man and some young hottie together.
OK, so you get passed over for younger women with firmer bodies and such. Well, join the club. I’m not exactly the first choice of most people of the opposite sex either. That’s just the way it is.
Another point that occurred to me watching this movie is that I think different viewers will put different interpretations on the photographer’s compliments and encouragement and mentoring of the younger woman, and the way it turns out he’s had almost identical arrangements with, and made almost identical statements to, other younger women.
On the one hand, as I mentioned above, you can see that as being phony, as just a game of pushing the buttons he needs to push to get a younger woman in bed or to get her to date him. But when I reflect about male behavior of that kind, I don’t know that that description necessarily captures what’s going on.
I think it’s more a matter that when you’re sexually attracted to someone, you’re more open to the good in that person. You’re more aware, more appreciative, of their good traits that have nothing to do with their looks. Sincerely, that is. I don’t mean that you compliment them in other areas as a seduction ruse; I mean you really do see good things about their intellect, talent, personality, etc. that you may have overlooked if there hadn’t been that initial physical attraction.
I’m sure there are guys who are so focused on the looks of a woman they’re attracted to that they don’t notice anything else about her–don’t take her mind seriously, don’t appreciate the things that make her a good person, implicitly treat her as only having value as a sex object or an ornament, etc. But I’ll bet it is in fact more common that they become hyper-aware of the other good things about her and if anything have a tendency to overrate them.
Which can still be criticized as wishful thinking or self-deception, but that’s different from pretending to see good things in a woman in order to flatter and trick her.
The improvement I’d like to see isn’t that guys stop responding so favorably to all the non-looks-based good qualities in beautiful women, but that they learn to more consistently spot and react to those qualities in other people as well. I don’t think the photographer is doing something dishonest or inappropriate in mentoring 20 year old hotties and encouraging them to be more confident and develop their artistic talent to its full potential; I’d just like to see him similarly bring out the best in a 55 year old obese gay guy who happens to have comparable artistic potential.
But anyway, solid movie. I liked the characters, I liked most but not all of the particulars, and I liked that it got me thinking about various issues concerning relationships and especially this age difference thing and how people react to it.